1 February 2019

Memorising Facts

I took over a couple of Year 11 groups in December and was really surprised by how few GCSE facts and formulae they knew. When we reviewed their mock exam I noticed that they'd all got a question wrong where they were asked to find the perimeter of a semi-circle. It turned out that none of them could recall the formula for circumference, so were unable to even score the first mark on this three mark question.

In class we do loads of work on problem solving, reasoning, exam technique and everything else, but I realised that if they don't know the basics then it's really hard to move forward. Of course knowing things in isolation isn't helpful at all. Once they've memorised their facts then they need to know what to do with them. The application is the hard part. But if we can get the facts and formulae sorted, this gives us an opportunity to focus on the real challenges at hand.

Gaps in fundamental factual knowledge are pretty common at maths GCSE. Examiner feedback for Edexcel shows, for example, that students struggle to recall the number of grams in a kilogram. It's such a shame for them to lose marks on things like this. We do so much work with them over the years on developing their conceptual understanding and reasoning skills, but one of the few things we really need them to do on their own in the run up to their GCSE exams is commit facts to memory. That's just how GCSEs work - there is an element of memorisation in every subject. In maths that includes unit conversions, area formulae, trigonometric ratios, polygon properties, angle facts, circle theorems and more.

In an attempt to fix this I started giving my students knowledge quizzes in class. Each lesson I gave them one quiz they'd done in a previous lesson and one quiz they'd not seen before. At first they knew barely any answers. But after trying the same quiz three or four times, they started to remember things. And they loved that. Suddenly they were able to access a lot more problems in lessons. Success is motivating, and it really has started to have a big impact on their confidence at this vital time.


In an ideal world our Year 11 students would go home for the Easter holidays and revise all their subjects, committing facts to memory and practising exam papers. What often happens is that they look at a revision guide or a set of revision cards or an app, and hope everything will just stick in their heads. When I was at university I made myself sets of questions and photocopied them, completing my quizzes again and again until I got full marks every time. Ideally our students would do something similar at GCSE and A level. But although we can advise them to do so, they often don't do it. So this is where I'm going to try to help...

I have put all my quizzes into books which now form part of the new 'Knowledge Quiz' series. They have just gone to print so will be on sale from 1st March. The books contain multiple copies of the same quiz so students can tear out a quiz, have a go, check the answers, and then try again in a few days. After completing the same quiz a few times and memorising the facts, and they can come back and try again a month later.

The books will be £8 to buy from Amazon, but they will be discounted to £5 if schools bulk buy directly from John Catt. I envisage that some schools will buy copies for their students to take home over Easter, and some schools might buy copies for each student to use in class (saving the teacher a lot of time and photocopying budget!).

Either way, I'm hopeful that this will close the huge gap in factual knowledge and allow us to focus on the important stuff.

These books cover the majority of facts and formulae required at GCSE. I am not suggesting that maths is a subject that just comes down to facts and formulae (of course not!) and neither am I suggesting that this is the only exam preparation a student needs to do (of course not!) - this is just a simple resource to help students memorise things.


There's more exciting news! These books are part of a series. I asked some of my favourite science teachers to create similar books for Chemistry, Biology and Physics. So thanks to Adam Boxer, Gemma Singleton and Ruth Ashbee, we have a whole series of Knowledge Quiz books coming out soon. It turns out there are a huge number of facts to learn for science (around nine times more facts than maths!). There are so many things to memorise for science, I have a feeling that these books are going to be hugely beneficial to students preparing for their GCSEs this year.

If this series is well received then we will extend it to other subjects and key stages next year. This is exciting!
"The Knowledge Quiz series is a deviously simple and effective way for students to revise for GCSE subjects".

I'll make sure I bring copies to the events I'm attending in March so that teachers can have a look. I can't wait to show people!


  1. Exciting publications. Congratulations. Jo - when do you sleep?

  2. Is there a sample page somewhere to look at?

  3. How much are the books? I fully concur as I think that this is quite important. I spend one whole lesson working on this vital skill each week. I prefer to use the color coding technique and draw pictures on the whiteboard to help aid recall. Part of it is down to your memory as well. Not all students have a lightbulb memory unfortunately. So this is why I adapt and improvise as much as possible. I have now tried a variety of methods. I get all pupils to color code any work done in their exercise books.
    Additionally since I love pictures, I make full use of them in my lessons. I'm also going to order that book. I’m always on the lookout for new memorization techniques to try out with my students in lessons.